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CHAPTER III.


THE STORY OF BURKE AND WILLS.


AMBROSE KYTE—HOW AN IRISH LAD ATTAINED TO OPULENCE—HIS MUNIFICENT BENEFACTIONS— STARTS AN EXPLORING EXPEDITION TO CROSS THE AUSTRALIAN CONTINENT—ROBERT O'HARA BURKE APPOINTED LEADER OF THE EXPEDITION—SETTING OUT AMIDST POPULAR ENTHUSIASM—THE FEAT SUCCESSFULLY ACCOMPLISHED—BACKWARD MARCH OF THE VICTORS—A RACE FOR LIFE—SERIES OP FATAL MISTAKES—TRAGIC CLOSE OF A BRILLIANT ENTERPRISE—DEATH OF BURKE AND WILLS—KING SAVED BY THE BLACKS—IMPORTANT RESULTS OF THE EXPEDITION.


"We must regard him as one of the most striking instances of success which even Victoria affords. Of humble origin, and with but little education and few natural advantages, he, by a dexterous use of favourable circumstances, accumulated a large fortune and won his way to a leading place in the community. It is gratifying to be able to reflect that, when he had reached a position of affluence, besides performing many acts of charity known only within a limited circle, he distinguished himself by making several munificent donations to stimulate useful enterprise and advance the interests of the country in which his wealth had been won."[1]

It was in these words that the leading journal of Victoria concluded its account of the career of a remarkable Irish-Australian, whose life reads like a page from the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments." Leaving his home in Nenagh, County Tipperary, in his eighteenth year, Ambrose Kyte was one of a number of young Irishmen of spirit and determination who had resolved on building homes for themselves in the distant south. On landing in Melbourne in 1840, he hired himself at ten shillings a week, but it was not long before his salary was doubled. In five years' time he was able to start business on his own account, and he succeeded so well that he gradually acquired by purchase a considerable amount of property in the principal street of the city. Then came the gold discoveries, with their consequent rapid rise in the value of houses and lands. Thus it came about that the young Irish lad, who in 1840, was glad to accept ten shillings a week for the hard labour of his hands, was enabled in 1857 to retire from business with an annual rent-roll of £19,000, and to enter Parliament as the representative of East Melbourne. Unlike others who were enriched in a similar manner, he never overlooked the obligations he owed both to his native and his adopted land.

A moralist of the era has placed on record the reflections suggested to his mind by the contemplation of the noble philanthropy of Ambrose Kyte, as contrasted with the miserly selfishness of many others who had been equally favoured by fortune: "One act of splendid generosity is worthily followed by another, and the careful maintenance of the donor's incognito enhances the merit of the action by placing the motive beyond the reach of imputation. In proportion as such instances are rare, so should they be selected for special eulogy and pointed out as admirable examples. Of the hundreds and thousands who amass wealth or achieve an independence in these colonies, how few there are, who, by so much as a solitary act of beneficence, acknowledge their gratitude to the country which gave them fortune, identify themselves with its advancement, or leave any honourable trace of their success upon its history." As was truly said by one of his contemporaries, "It would be well for Victoria if she had a few more such benefactors as this industrious, shrewd, yet withal free-handed son of Tipperary." From time to time prizes of £1,000 for the encouragement of agriculture and the development of the various resources of the colony, were offered through the medium of the principal metropolitan journal by "A Merchant of Melbourne." It was some time before people in general came to know that the anonymous merchant of Melbourne was Mr. Ambrose Kyte. His most memorable contribution of this kind, and the most far-reaching in its consequences, was the offer of £1,000 as the nucleus of an exploration fund for the fitting out of a Victorian band of explorers to cross the continent, and report as to what actually existed in the great unseen interior of Australia. In the words of an eminent Australian littérateur,[2] "It was the munificent, but modest act of an Irishman—Mr. Ambrose Kyte—that gave the first impulse to the movement which resulted in the crossing of this continent from end to end; and it was also an Irishman, Robert O'Hara Burke—who commanded that gallant band of explorers, and who, having commenced his heroic work, confronted death as calmly as he had conquered difficulties and disregarded dangers."

On the occasion of a complimentary address being presented to him, in the presence of more than 2,000 of his fellow-citizens, by way of recognising the philanthropy and public spirit by which he had been actuated in originating the first expedition across the Australian continent, Ambrose Kyte ably vindicated the rights and duties of Australian citizenship. He emphatically declared that every citizen owed a heavy debt of gratitude to the country which had enriched him, and that he was called upon, instead of spending his fortune in distant lands, and purchasing with it the means of indolent self-indulgence, to apply some portion of it to promote the welfare and accelerate the progress of the community, among whom he had risen to opulence. As to the gift of £1,000 for exploration purposes, he looked upon that sum as nought in itself, but it derived its value from the fact that it was the donation of a working man, who out of the proceeds of his hard earnings and years of toil, had made a sacrifice as soon as he was able to do so. Out of that sacrifice had arisen a monument which would never be obliterated.

Mr. Kyte's patriotic offer elicited a response of £3,210 from the Victorian public, and the exploration fund was further supplemented by a parliamentary grant of several thousands. The work of organising the most ambitious effort of exploration that had, up to that time, been attempted by any of the colonies, was intrusted to a committee of the Royal Society. General satisfaction was felt at the appointment of Robert O'Hara Burke to the leadership of the expedition, for he was a man who had given signal proofs of courage, commanding ability, and the possession of many qualities that peculiarly fitted him to head the daring enterprise of crossing an unknown continent from sea to sea. A member of an old Galway family, he served in the Austrian army for some years, and retired with the rank of captain. After a brief stay in his native land, he decided on emigrating to the colonies. His reputation had preceded him, and the Government of Victoria secured his services in the capacity of inspector of police, the position he occupied when his ardent temperament and love of adventure prompted him to volunteer to take the leadership of the contemplated exploring expedition. No expense was spared in the equipment of the expedition, and on August 20th, 1860, the brave little band, with the soldierly figure of Burke riding in the van, left Melbourne, amidst the acclamations of the populace, to penetrate the mysteries of the interior. On arriving at Cooper's Creek, the farthest point in a due northerly direction that previous explorers were able to attain, Burke determined to establish a depot to act as a sort of base of operations, on which he could fall back in the event of insurmountable obstacles opposing his progress through the thousand miles of country to which his face was turned, and on which no white man's foot had yet been placed. Leaving this depot in charge of Mr. Brahe and a small party, Burke chose three companions. Wills, King and Gray (the latter two compatriots of his own) and, with the characteristic impetuosity of the Irish soldier, made a bold dash into the unexplored regions ahead. Had he been less enthusiastic in his enterprise, and less eager to earn the distinction of being the first man to cross the continent, the terrible series of disasters that enshrouded the close of an otherwise signally successful expedition would, in all human probability, have been averted. But Burke's ardent impulsiveness was not solely responsible for the calamitous close of this great event in Australian history. The exploration committee sitting in Melbourne, who should have sent a vessel round to the north of the continent to meet the explorers after they had finished their hazardous enterprise, did not do so until it was too late to be of any practical service. The result was that when Burke, Wills, King and Gray stood as victors on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, on February 4th, 1861, none of their countrymen were present to witness their triumph, no friendly steamer was at hand to bear them back to the popular ovation that awaited them in Melbourne; and so they had no other alternative than to retrace their steps, retraverse the overland route with their faces now turned to the south, and make with all possible speed for the depot at Cooper's Creek. It was literally a race for life, and poor Gray perished on the way. The surviving three, by a singularly sad coincidence, reached Cooper's Creek on the afternoon of the very day on which the depot had been abandoned by the party whom Burke had left in charge. Brahe, the officer in command of the depot, finding his stock of provisions growing smaller, and feeling convinced that the explorers must have either perished, or else returned to the settled districts by some other route, had broken up his camp and started southwards in complete ignorance of the immediate proximity of the returning heroes. Before leaving, he took the precaution of burying some provision at the foot of a tree which he had marked with the word "Dig." When Burke and his companions came up a few hours afterwards, weak, weary, and well-nigh exhausted and found the camp on which their salvation depended silent and deserted, their anguish, astonishment and cruel disappointment may well be imagined. It was some time before the unfortunate little band realised the full extent of this wholly unexpected disaster. After having achieved the great work which all their predecessor in the field of Australian exploration had failed to accomplish, this was indeed a sad anti-climax to all the hopes and anticipations that had cheered their lonely march across the wide Australian plains. When, after a brief interval of dazed astonishment, they recovered from the effects of this terrible disappointment, they raised their weak voices in unison in the hope that possibly some of their old comrades, who ought to have been there to meet and welcome them, might still be within hearing. But no answering cry brought relief to their strained ears. Then, looking around, they descried the marked tree, and, eagerly turning up the soil beneath, found the food of which they were so much in need, together with a brief note from Brahe, bearing that morning's date and recording how he had broken up the camp and started homewards with all his men "in good condition." This latter statement was not correct, for it was afterwards proved conclusively that several members of Brahe's party were weak and sickly. Brahe may be acquitted of entertaining any deliberate intention to deceive, but to,his thoughtlessness in not setting down the plain unvarnished truth, the disasters that immediately ensued were in a great measure attributable. For the triumphant explorers held a consultation, and the opinion of Burke unfortunately prevailed, viz., that they could not hope to overtake a party "all in good condition" when they themselves were in the worst condition imaginable. If they had only pushed on for a few hours more they would actually have come up with Brahe and his party, who did not travel very far the first day. As the Rev. Father Woods remarks in his exhaustive "History of Australian Exploration," "they were camped within a few miles of each other, and either party would have sacrificed everything to know that the others were so near." In deciding to remain for awhile at Cooper's Creek to recruit their wasted strength, instead of at once advancing on the track of their comrades, Burke, Wills and King committed the unfortunate error that cost two of them their lives. And, when they did resolve to start afresh, they made still another fatal mistake in branching off towards South Australia as being, in the opinion of Burke the nearest goal of relief, instead of continuing on the main homeward route. Had they adopted the latter course they would most assuredly have encountered Brahe, who was evidently not at peace with his conscience. His desertion of the depot, without knowing the fate of Burke and his companions, was troubling his mind, and he determined to make a final effort to ascertain if the explorers had returned. He accordingly retraced his steps to Cooper's Creek and, to all appearance, the site of the depot was in just the same condition as he had left it a few days before. All would yet have been well, if he had only thought it advisable to verify appearances by seeing in the cavity at the foot of his marked tree still contained what he had deposited in it on leaving. Had he taken that simple step, he would have found to his great surprise that the provisions and his letter were gone, and that that journals of the expedition occupied their place, thus affording conclusive testimony that Burke and his companions had returned and were somewhere in the vicinity. But Brahe, with characteristic thoughtlessness, forgot to do what ninety-nine men out of an average hundred would have done under similar circumstances. After a hurried inspection of the scene, he went away, fully convinced from very insufficient premises that no white man had visited the place since the breaking-up of the camp. By an extraordinary piece of ill-luck, Brahe was not long gone when poor Wills laboriously wended his way back to Cooper's Creek from the new direction that the ill-fated explorers had taken. He, in his turn, anxiously looked around but could see no signs of the presence of friends, Brahe, by another grievous oversight, having left no indication whatever to show that he had been there a second time. Then came the tragic close of this brilliant and successful enterprise. Burke and his two companions, enfeebled and emaciated by fatigue and privation, struggled on in the vain hope of reaching one of the outlying squatters' stations of South Australia. Wills was the first to succumb to exhaustion; Burke yielded up his brave spirit a day or two afterwards; and King would assuredly have shaded the sad fate of his companions in misfortune had he not luckily fallen in with a party of blacks who treated him very kindly and allowed him to live with them for several months. He was the hardiest of the three, and by his indefatigable exertions throughout the appalling difficulties and disappointments that met them at every step, he succeeded in prolonging the lives of Burke and Wills for days. The last words committed to paper by the dying leader of the expedition were: "King has behaved nobly and deserves to be well rewarded." King was in truth a remarkable example of the devoted Irishman of humble birth, who conceives an ardent affection for the brave leader under whose banner he is serving, and who is ready to follow whithersoever he goeth. As one of the historians of the expedition rightly remarks: "Having tended Burke and Wills to their death, this brave young soldier preserved their papers with a faithful devotion and constant heroism worthy of the Victoria Cross."

When Brahe arrived in Melbourne with the startling news that none of the explorers had returned to the depot at Cooper's Creek, and when no tidings of them could be obtained from any source, the whole colony was thrown into a state of excitement; and the exploration committee, suddenly awakened out of its slumbers, began to exhibit an activity that would have prevented all the fatalities of the expedition, if it had only been exercised at the proper time. No less than five well-equipped relief parties were fitted out and despatched with all possible speed, each converging on the track of the missing explorers from different points, so as to make the search systematic and complete. The party headed by Mr. Alfred Howitt was the only one that achieved the immediate object in view, but it is worthy of note that the others, in searching for Burke and Wills, still further explored and opened up the great interior of the Australian continent. Thus, even in death, these vanished heroes advanced the cause for which in life they had worked with so much energy, enthusiasm, and self-sacrifice. Well and truly has Father Woods called this "the most glorious era in the history of Australian discovery." Howitt's party, after a diligent search of all the country around Cooper's Creek, at length discovered poor King sitting in a native hut. Howitt states in his diary that when they found this solitary survivor of Burke's party, he presented a melancholy appearance, being wasted to a shadow and hardly distinguishable as a civilised being but for the remnants of clothes upon him. The kindness and presence of friends, however, soon effected a considerable change for the better in his personal appearance, and enabled him to accompany Howitt's party back to Melbourne, where he received the warm and generous welcome that was due to the sole survivor of an expedition at once so successful and unfortunate. Parliament voted him a substantial pension, and also awarded liberal grants to the immediate relatives of Burke and Wills. A public funeral was decreed as a national expression of the pervading grief at the irreparable loss of "two as gallant spirits as ever sacrificed life for the extension of science and the cause of mankind." Accordingly, a second expedition was sent to bring back the remains of Burke and Wills from their lonely resting-place at Cooper's Creek, for interment in the same city, whose whole population had turned out not many months before to gaze on the dashing leader and cheer his cavalcade, as they started full of life and sanguine anticipations on their path of discovery through the untouched heart of Australia. Now, what a striking dramatic contrast! The city again sent forth its thousands, and deputations attended from every place of importance; but they all slowly followed in silence the hearse that contained the bones of the Irish-Australian hero who was the observed of all observers on that former day of pride and exultation. A huge monolith of granite marks the spot in the Melbourne Cemetery where Burke and his faithful coadjutor. Wills, sleep side by side, and on one of the city eminences their statues rest on the same pedestal, telling to each successive generation of young Australians a story of dauntless courage, chivalric heroism, rare fortitude, noble self-sacrifice, and ultimate triumph, only to be followed by the most painful and harrowing of deaths, with friends so near and yet so far.

Burke's dashing exploit, while it unhappily killed himself, also killed the theory that the centre of Australia was an arid impassable desert—a theory persistently promulgated by previous explorers, and which had met with almost universal acceptance until he practically demonstrated its utter fallacy. The journals of the expedition, when published, conveyed the gratifying intelligence that Burke and Wills had, for the most part, travelled through a rich pastoral country capable of feeding countless flocks and herds. Settlers by the score followed in their track, and, in less than a year, the whole of the country along their line of march was occupied by the advanced guard of civilised progress. "So rapid has been the occupation of this hitherto unknown country," says an official report of the era, "that, on the east coast alone, the sheep stations now taken up and stocked extend from the settled districts in an unbroken line to within one hundred miles of the Gulf of Carpentaria." Burke's expedition in fact completely revolutionised the accepted notions of Australian geography, and filled the map of the great southern continent with the host of names that are now seen abounding where a huge blank space had previously existed. It is no small honour to the Irish in Australia that one of their number was the leading spirit in effecting so wondrous and beneficent a transformation in the face of the country which they had made their adopted home.

  1. The Melbourne Argus, Nov. 17, 1868.
  2. Mr. James Smith.